“This is indeed a joyous night…that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops – free at last!”
Delivered 2 May 1994, in Johannesburg, South Africa, this speech was given after the country’s first democratic elections through which the African National Congress (ANC) were victorious and Nelson Mandela became President following his 27 years of imprisonment for speaking out, both as an experienced lawyer and political activist, against apartheid, a strict policy of racial segregation that repressed the black South African majority. He and his co-accused ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’ members received life sentences. Mandela was imprisoned from 1964 to 1990. During the 1970s and 1980s world protest against apartheid grew, with increased demands for Mandela’s release. In 1990 the ban against the ANC was lifted and Mandela was released unconditionally.
Biography in brief: Mandela was born 18 July 1918 in Umtata, Transkei. During his early career as a lawyer, Mandela became a political activist with the banned political party, the African National Congress (ANC). In 1964 he was imprisoned for life for plotting violent revolution. “I am the first accused” were the opening words of his speech in his own defence at his trial. Mandela became a symbolic figurehead for anti-apartheid and anti-racist campaigners throughout the world. In 1994, four years after his release from prison, the ANC won the South African election and Mandela became president. “Free at last” was his first official speech in his new political role.
“My fellow South Africans – the people of South Africa:
This is indeed a joyous night. Although not yet final, we have received the provisional results of the election, and are delighted by the overwhelming support for the African National Congress.
To all those in the African National Congress and the democratic movement who worked so hard these last few days and through these many decades, I thank you and honour you.
To the people of South Africa and the world who are watching: this is a joyous night for the human spirit. This is your victory too. You helped end apartheid; you stood with us through the transition.
I watched, along with all of you, as the tens of thousands of our people stood patiently in long queues for many hours, some sleeping on the open ground overnight waiting to cast this momentous vote.
South Africa’s heroes are legend across the generations. But it is you, the people, who are our true heroes. This is one of the most important moments in the life of our country.
I stand before you filled with deep pride and joy. Pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your own. And joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops – Free at Last!
I stand before you humbled by your courage, with a heart full of love for all of you. I regard it as the highest honour to lead the ANC at this moment in our history, and that we have been chosen to lead our country into the new century.
I pledge to use all my strength and ability to live up to your expectations of me as well as of the ANC.
Tomorrow, the entire ANC leadership and I will be back at our desks. We are rolling up our sleeves to begin tackling the problems our country faces. We ask you all to join us. Go back to your jobs in the morning. Let’s get South Africa working.
For we must, together and without delay, begin to build a better life for all South Africans. This means creating jobs building houses, providing education and bringing peace and security for all.
The calm and tolerant atmosphere that prevailed during the elections depicts the type of South Africa we can build. It set the tone for the future. We might have our differences, but we are one people with a common destiny in our rich variety of culture, race and tradition.
People have voted for the party of their choice and we respect that. This is democracy.
I hold out a hand of friendship to the leaders of all parties and their members, and ask all of them to join us in working together to tackle the problems we face as a nation. An ANC government will serve all the people of South Africa, not just ANC members.
We also commend the security forces for the sterling work done. This has laid a solid foundation for a truly professional security force, committed to the service of the people and loyalty to the new constitution.
Now is the time for celebration, for South Africans to join together to celebrate the birth of democracy. I raise a glass to you all for working so hard to achieve what can only be called a small miracle. Let our celebrations be in keeping with the mood set in the elections, peaceful, respectful and disciplined, showing we are a people ready to assume the responsibilities of government.
I promise that I will do my best to be worthy of the faith and confidence you have placed in me and my organization, the African National Congress. Let us build the future together, and toast a better life for all South Africans”.